On the day I visited Venice, the city was flooding—a precursor, I fear, of what is to come. Some of the streets alongside the canals were underwater, deep enough that I couldn’t venture into them without rubber boots.
In the Piazza San Marco, the main square of the city, raised boardwalks had been erected to allow tourists to pass from one side to the other. Outdoor cafes, their tables waiting for customers, were untended because they sat in several inches of water. A few children romped and splashed in the accidental lake that covered much of the square, their squeals of delight piercing the general hubbub.
I wondered, sadly, how much longer tourists would be allowed to visit the legendary city.
I made a point of visiting the famed Rialto Bridge spanning the Grand Canal—to say I’d been there, of course, but also because my youngest daughter accepted a marriage proposal on that very spot several years ago. I found it quite romantic, despite the crowds.
Until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t!
I had stopped to take pictures at the top of a staircase from the bridge to the street below, when I was roughly jostled from behind. I almost dropped my cellphone.
“Outta the way!” a voice growled. “You’re blocking the way!”
The speaker, about my age, held the hand of a little girl, perhaps six or seven, and they started down the steps past me.
More out of surprise than belligerence, I said, “Yeah, I guess I am. Too bad!”
The man stopped, turned, and came back towards me, the little girl drawn along. Standing one or two stairs below, he had to look up as he spoke to me. He appeared to be somewhat younger than I, but old enough that I assumed the child was his granddaughter.
“What did you say?” he demanded, his English accented but fluent. And angry.
“I’m taking pictures,” I said. “You should watch where you’re going.”
“You shouldn’t even be allowed to come here!” he exclaimed. “You’re spoiling our city, all you people!” He was quite excited by then.
“Why don’t you calm down?” I said, wondering where this was headed. “Before you frighten your granddaughter.” The little girl was clutching his hand tightly.
“I’ll calm down when I punch you in the nose,” he said, still looking up at me.
“You won’t do that,” I said, slipping my phone into my pocket, bracing, wondering if he would.
There was a momentary pause.
* * * * * * *
I say momentary because an awful lot of thoughts were flashing through my mind at that precise moment.
Who is this guy?
Why’s he so mad?
What if he takes a swing?
If he does, I’ll push him, and he’ll fall down the stairs.
Yeah, but what about the little girl? What if she gets hurt?
And what if the police come?
How do I get into these messes?
* * * * * * *
The man apparently thought twice about it. Turning away abruptly, he started down the stairs, the little girl in tow. “We can’t even walk around our own city anymore,” he complained loudly, one arm gesticulating. “All you people, you come here, you block the streets, you ruin everything. You should stay home, stay wherever you come from…”
His voice faded away, and within seconds he and the little girl were swallowed up in the crowded street, lost to sight. No one else seemed to have noticed the altercation.
I was shaken, of course, although convinced I had done nothing wrong. After a few minutes, I resumed my walking tour of the remarkable city.
Later that evening, reflecting over a glass of wine, I wondered if the man’s anger was not so much with me, as with the fact that I was but one of hordes of tourists overrunning his city, even as the marshy land it sits on sinks into the sea. In fact, more than 30 million people visit Venice each year, a city with a population of approximately 50,000 souls.
In his anger, I heard echoes of complaints from people in nations all over the world—people opposed to the influx of immigrants and asylum-seekers to their countries, people afraid their jobs will be taken, their culture destroyed, their language lost. Their fear is real and their resentment palpable. Politicians cater to it.
And I wondered if those same fears had been voiced, in vain, by the indigenous peoples whose homelands had been invaded by the rapacious colonizers who appeared on their shores four centuries ago.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
I’m awfully glad I visited Venice when I did, and I’m happy I stood where my daughter did almost twenty years ago when her beau proposed to her. It is an indelible memory for us both.
But I won’t go back again.